On the eve of President Reagan's first nationally televised address on the Iran arms deals Nov. 13, 1986, senior White House officials privately expressed grave alarm over damage to Reagan's popularity and credibility and the president himself proposed tactics to try to discredit news reports of arms deals with Iran, according to documents made public yesterday.

The documents, including notes taken at two of Reagan's meetings on Nov. 12 and the notes of former chief of staff Donald T. Regan at a larger meeting two days earlier, show the president wanted to make a public statement because he felt he was being "held out to dry." But Reagan also repeatedly urged his aides to withhold information about the arms deals to protect the hostages, apparently hoping to keep alive the secret dealings with Iran.

Although a shipment of arms to Iran had been made only two weeks earlier to win freedom for hostage David P. Jacobsen, and another had been planned for mid-November, the president is quoted in the notes as saying repeatedly that he did not pay ransom to terrorists. At one point he said he wanted to write to released hostages Benjamin Weir and the Rev. Lawrence M. Jenco to tell them that "they were not ransomed."

The notes shed some new light on a strategy that was adopted for the Reagan speech the following evening, his first major comments on the mushrooming controversy. That strategy was to withhold the basic facts about the deals while seizing on some false news reports and strongly denying them.

Reagan suggested this approach to Regan and Poindexter, saying, "wherever we can, point to flat denial." Reagan offered one example, saying that "Bud not in Tehran in Sept." as The Washington Post and others had reported at the time. In fact, Reagan's former national security adviser, Robert C. (Bud) McFarlane, had been in Tehran in May.

Then-acting National Security Council deputy director Alton G. Keel Jr. added the suggestion, according to the notes, that Reagan deny published reports that Danish ships carried the weapons to Iran, which he did in the address.

The documents offer graphic new evidence of what the Tower special review board described as the "chaos" that erupted in the White House in the days after the Iran deals were made public.

Patrick J. Buchanan, then White House communications director, wrote to Regan Nov. 12 that "we face a grave communications problem" over the Iran arms sales.

"The appearance of things is that we have negotiated with a terrorist regime more detested by the American people than the Soviet Union, that we have paid in spare parts and military equipment for our hostages, that we violated our policy and traduced our principles, that we are now stonewalling," Buchanan wrote.

"Not since I came here has there appeared such an issue which could do such deep and permanent damage to the president's standing."

Urging Regan to make "earliest and fullest disclosure of what we did, what we attempted, why, etc.," Buchanan warned that "the story will not die," and he said, "We have already witnessed some jubilant assaults upon Ronald Reagan's reputation for principle -- from his enemies -- and some bitter assaults from some of his friends."

Buchanan commented that "we are fortunate Congress is out" and predicted "if we wait three weeks, the president's approval will be down in the mid-fifties at best," a reference to the results of public opinion polls.

In a handwritten response, Regan said, "I agree, and have so advocated for a week, we are going to do something on Thurs (tmrw). Finally. Its late, but I hope not too late. Will check with you Thurs A.M. Don." On Thursday the 13th, Reagan did address the nation on television.

Buchanan's note reflected the fears of White House officials that Reagan was being politically wounded by revelations of the Iran arms deals since he had often vowed never to make concessions to terrorists, and Iran was on the official U.S. list of nations sponsoring terrorism.

Ever since the Iran deals were publicly disclosed Nov. 3, White House aides had been engaged in a tug-of-war over whether to make public statements, with Regan urging a public explanation by the president, and then-national security adviser John M. Poindexter urging silence.

At the president's national security briefing on the morning of Nov. 12, Regan informed Reagan that presidential pollster Richard B. Wirthlin had warned him that Reagan's credibility was "dropping like a rock," according to notes taken by Keel.

Regan took extensive notes at the key planning meeting Nov. 10. Last week Keel's notes of this meeting were released by the Iran-contra committees, which quoted the president as instructing his subordinates, "don't talk TOWs, don't talk specifics" in public statements. The White House spokesman, Marlin Fitzwater, insisted this week that Reagan was concerned for the hostages' welfare and was not trying to cover up the facts of the Iran deals when he made that remark, which referred to the TOW antitank missiles that had been shipped to Iran.

Regan's notes show that some officials believed the arms deals and hostage releases could continue despite the controversy. "Can continue to work on Iran," he noted. "Can continue to get hostages {out}."

Reagan said, "We must say something, but not much . . . . Must say something because I'm being held out to dry. Have not dealt with terrorists, don't know who they are. This is long-range Iranian policy. No further speculation or answers so as not to endanger hostages. We won't pay any money, or give anything to terrorists."

Regan's notes show Shultz questioning the prospect that more arms might be sold to Iran "if they ask for more." Poindexter responded, "Cannot tie hands that way," apparently rejecting a suggestion that future sales be ruled out.

Reagan then justified the sale of arms this way, according to Regan's notes: "Side with military superiority will win {the Iran-Iraq war}. We want to have things even. This helps Iran, which was weaker."

Staff researcher Michelle Hall contributed to this report.